The Boy Who Followed Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith


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Question: What is the perfect antidote to a string of (maybe too syrupy) sentimental novels?

Answer: Tom Ripley.

By way of background, regular visitors will know that I felt this year’s Giller Prize longlist featured perhaps too many novels centred on abandoned children, abused children or children searching for missing mothers. It wasn’t that they weren’t good books (in fact, one, The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler, was my Giller choice), it was just that the repetition in the story line wore on me.

So I promised myself that once my Giller reading was done, I’d take on volume four in Patricia Highsmith’s series featuring Tom Ripley (The Boy Who Followed Ripley) as a kind of “brain purge” to get me back to equilibrium. I knew from the first three novels that “Tome” (that’s what his French-born and raised wife Heloise calls him) would be the opposite of sentimentality — amoral (or at least “differently moral”), fully capable of murder and yet lovably intriguing in his own way. I was not disappointed in the least.

In The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Tom remains comfortably settled in semi-retirement on his estate in Villeperce, not far from Paris. His wife’s allowance from her family and his own income (mainly from shady dealings in the art world, detailed in volume two, Ripley Under Ground) leave him relatively worry free, since his past criminal excesses don’t trouble him. In fact, his major concerns as the book starts are the carpenter ants that have invaded his bathroom (Rentokill has failed to stop them) and how to avoid going along with Heloise and her friend Noelle on an Adventure Cruise to the Arctic, a proposed distraction that fills him with horror.

Ripley being Ripley we know that some form of adventure will soon introduce itself. Highsmith is not one for delaying the inevitable, so that takes place on page four and five when he notices that a boy he had observed outside his estate a few days earlier is now looking at him from across the room in bar where Tom has stopped for a drink. The plot thickens quickly when the boy departs at the same time as Tom:

Now it was dark. Tom crossed the main road under the not very bright light of a street lamp, and entered the darker road on which his house sat a couple of hundred yards away. Tom’s road was almost straight, two-lane and paved, and Tom knew it well, but was glad of the approach of a car whose lights enabled him to see the left side of the road on which he was walking. As soon as the car had passed, Tom became aware of quick but soft steps behind him, and turned.

A figure had a flashlight. Tom saw blue jeans and tennis shoes. The boy from the bar.

“Mr. Ripley!”

Tom tensed. “Yes?”

“Good evening.” The boy stopped, fiddled with the flashlight. “B-Billy Rollins, my name is. Since I’ve got a flashlight — maybe I can walk you home?”

Ripley’s curiosity has been sparked. It doesn’t take him long to hypothesize that he is being followed by a kindred soul and he asks “Billy” in when they get to the estate. He quickly learns that the boy is an American on the run (not that different in age or circumstances from the Tom of volume one of the series) and offers to drive him the seven kilometers home to Moret where the youth is working as a part-time gardener.

Tom watched him walk to the dark gates, shine the torch on the lock, then turn the key. Billy passed through, waved at Tom, then closed the gates. As Tom backed to turn the car, he saw number 78 plainly visible on its blue official metal plaque beside the main door. Odd, Tom thought. Why should the boy want a boring job like this, even for a short time, unless he was hiding something? But Billy didn’t look like a delinquent. The most likely thing, Tom thought, was that Billy had had a quarrel with his parents or suffered a disappointment with a girl, and had hopped on an airplane to try to forget it. Tom had the feeling the boy had plenty of money, and was in no need of garden work at fifty francs a day.

Tom’s feeling intensifies three days later while he is reading the International Herald Tribune:

He got up restlessly, went near the window, where there was a bit more light, and looked at the People column on the back page of the Trib. Frank Sinatra was making another final appearance, this time in a forthcoming film. Sixteen-year-old Frank Pierson, favorite son of the late super-food tycoon John Pierson, had taken off from the family home in Maine, and the family was anxious after nearly three weeks with no word from him. Frank had been extremely upset by his father’s death in July.

Needless to say, the death of the enormously wealthy John Pierson had questions surrounding it. He had been confined to a wheelchair for a decade, following an unsuccessful assassination attempt on him (business-related). His death came when his wheelchair went over a Maine cliff on his Kennebunkport estate, either an accident or suicide, or perhaps not. Okay, this is Highsmith, so pretty obviously “not”. (Aside: And, for modern readers, there is the additional head-scratcher of how she happened to feature Kennebunkport decades before the Bushes and Romneys made it a household name as a coastal retreat for the wealthy.)

That’s enough plot set-up (and hardly a spoiler — we know all this by page 26 in the edition I read). His curiosity now fully engaged, Tom in the succeeding pages will develop and maintain a friendship with Billy/Frank that will take them to West Berlin (this is the mid-1980s so the Berlins are still separated), Hamburg, Paris and, finally, Maine. Rest assured, for those who love Highsmith’s noir action, there is a lot of intrigue and violence along the way.

While The Boy Who Followed Ripley and volume five, Ripley Under Water, are regarded by some as not up to the first three Ripley volumes, I found this one to be every bit as good. That endorsement does come with a couple of caveats, however.

The first is that you do need to have read the first three volumes before trying this one — it makes frequent reference to “character-developing” incidents for Tom that take place in the first three books and those references are important. As well, as a reader, you need to have emerged from those books with at least a grudging respect or admiration for Tom, rather than regarding him as evil incarnate (which, it has to be said, would be a perfectly reasonable option).

Secondly, this novel is not nearly as cinematic as the first three — which might explain why they all have been made into movies (at least two of the three have been done twice) and this one has not, at least to my knowledge (and please correct me in comments if I am wrong). Indeed, the first half of the book is almost introspective: Tom discovers in Frank a younger version of himself, a character who, not totally unlike Tom, became a murderer more through circumstance than any kind of personal failure or planning. While amoral Tom quickly got over that, Frank is still troubled by what he did. Highsmith uses the first half of the book to firmly establish that tension between the two of them — the dramatic action returns to cinematic Highsmith form in the latter half.

Those qualifications aside, The Boy Who Followed Ripley was a complete success for me and not just in removing any lingering after-effects of sentimentality. I look forward with much anticipation to the final Ripley volume, although I intend to again leave it on the shelf for perhaps another year — that spacing has worked so well for me with the first four volumes that I see no reason to rush into reading the final one.

12 Responses to “The Boy Who Followed Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’ve had the original on my TBR for far too long, I’m going to read it this summer, I really am!


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I had the Everyman’s Library volume with the first three novels in it for a few years before I started the first one — so it took me a while to get started as well. And it will take me close to five years to complete the project, even if it only takes three days to read one of the novels once I start (and even that is spacing it out because I don’t want it to end too quickly).

      I already have a few more Highsmith stand-alone novels (picked from recommendations in comments on the previous reviews) available, so I think I will be reading her for some time yet.


      • kimbofo Says:

        I treated myself to that Everyman’s Library volume earlier in the year, so am looking forward to following Tom’s adventures. I did think the first book was brilliant — he’s totally amoral but you can’t help cheering him on.


  2. Craig D. Says:

    Glad to see you enjoyed this one. A lot of critics are really down on the final two Ripley books. I don’t think either of them are quite as good as the first three, but I still consider all four sequels essential reading for anyone who likes the character. Highsmith somehow managed to pull off the neat trick of never repeating herself, which is something you can’t say for most authors writing a series.

    Re: cinema, it’s occurred to me that the last two books would need to be combined into a single film, since they both feature a lot of introspection and Tom wandering around Europe with not much happening in terms of plot. Of course, in the current cinematic climate, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw The Ripley Saga: The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Part 1 followed by Part 2 six months later…


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: I think if you are engaged with the character of Tom this one works just fine. I particularly liked the way that it supplied some context to what had happened in the previous novels — I suspect some critics find it too dependent on them. From my point of view, it added significant depth to the character.

    I still have the final volume to go so I can’t comment yet on your cinema observation. On the basis of reading four, I would say that Ripley would be a wonderful subject for one of the multi-part series that the Europeans do so well (say like Spiral from France or, even better, The Killing or The Bridge from Sweden) that would deal with all five books.


  4. leroyhunter Says:

    I think I might have been one of those who were somewhat “down” on this book in the past: it’s my least favourite of the 5, but still well worth reading. Highsmith sets her bar pretty high, so it only loses in comparison to the others, which are uniformly superb.

    My most recent of hers was Those Who Walk Away, a startlingly intense study in guilt and a fine addition to the sub-genre “Set in Venice”.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Once I’ve finish with Ripley, I’m going to try a few of the “movie” titles — although the Venice books do have appeal.


  6. cbjames Says:

    It seems like I’ve been reading a lot about Mr. Ripley on the blogs in the last month or two. I’ve a feeling I may finally get around tor reading one of the books soon. I’d no idea there were five. Sounds like a summer of fun to me.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    cbjames: A worthwhile investment is buying the Everyman’s Library edition of the first three Ripley novels — you get a very handsome hardcover at a very attractive price. As you can tell from comments on my reviews of the first two, I too am quite late in getting on the Highsmith bandwagon. I already have a couple of the stand alone novels waiting for me when I complete the Ripley series.


  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    As I’ve mentioned before, I’m much more a fan of the first Ripley novel than any of the sequels. I’m delighted it stood up for you though Kevin. She’s a very talented writer.

    Strangers on a Train is a Highsmith isn’t it? I should look into that one, as it’s one of my favourite Hitchcock films (not hard, I’m not actually a huge Hitchcock fan, but Strangers is a classic however you cut it).


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’m not sure where I will start the stand alone novels when I have finished with Ripley. I know from comments on the first four that people have already offered lots of approaches to consider. And the Hitchcock connection with Strangers has some appeal to making it the first.


  9. Craig D. Says:

    I would recommend Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train” to anyone, but I’d advise against bringing any Hitchcock baggage to it. In plot, in themes, in atmosphere, the film has little in common with the book. Hitchcock and Highsmith were diametrically opposed in their views of good vs. evil. He wanted to draw lines; she wanted to blur them, if not erase them entirely.


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